National Human Rights Institutions as Gateways to Remedy under the UNGPs: The National Human Rights Commission of India (Part.5) - By Alexandru Tofan

Editor's Note: Alexandru Rares Tofan recently graduated with an LLM in Transnational Law from King’s College London where he focused on international human rights law, transnational litigation and international law. He is currently an intern with the Doing Business Right project at the Asser Institute in The Hague. He previously worked as a research assistant at the Transnational Law Institute in London on several projects pertaining to human rights, labour law and transnational corporate conduct.

The National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRCI) was established on 12 October 1993 on the basis of the Protection of Human Rights Act (PHRA) as amended by the Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Act No 43 of 2006. It is a quasi-judicial institution whose purpose is to protect and promote human rights, which are understood to be those rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity as enshrined in the Indian Constitution and in applicable international covenants (see s.2 (1)(d)). The duties of the Commission include inquiring into complaints ex officio or upon request, intervening in court proceedings relating to human rights, analysing legislative acts and making recommendations, studying international treaties and guiding their effective implementation, undertaking and promoting research, and raising awareness of human rights inter alia (see s.12 (a)-(j)). Section 21 of the PHRA further allows for the establishment of State Human Rights Commissions, which have largely the same mandate as the NHRCI with the exception of section 12 (f) regarding the study of international treaties (see also here). There are presently twenty-five state commissions. The National Human Rights Commission is headquartered in New Delhi.

This article analyses two types of actions in order to observe the extent to which the NHRCI has assumed its role in promoting access to remedy in business and human rights cases. According to the 2010 Edinburgh Declaration of the International Co-ordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC), the participation of NHRIs in the remedial process may be either direct or indirect. As will be shown, the National Human Rights Commission of India has been quite shy in tackling issues of access to remedy whether directly or indirectly.

As to direct participation, the Commission is empowered to inquire into complaints alleging violations of human rights or negligence in the prevention of such violations by a public servant. It may do so either ex officio, on petition by a victim or following a court order (see s.12 (a)). While such an inquiry is ongoing, the NHRCI enjoys all the powers of a civil court trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure of 1908. Subsequent to reviewing the factors that inhibit the enjoyment of human rights, the Commission may recommend appropriate remedial measures (see s.12 (e)). The PHRA does not explicitly state whether the NHRCI may entertain complaints against companies. Yet the NHRCI’s 2012 Code of Ethics for the Indian Industry points out that there is no apparent reason not to extend the application of s.12 (a) to private persons (see here at page 28-29). This analysis nevertheless seems to be at odds with the practice of the Commission, which has been rather reluctant to exercise jurisdiction over companies. For instance, the NHRCI has carried out numerous investigations into allegations of child labour and bonded labour. These investigations were however carried out as a result of a Supreme Court order vesting the Commission with the power to oversee and monitor the implementation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976. The NHRCI has also intervened in cases relating to development-induced displacement, particularly in the cases of Special Economic Zones in India. It did not do so directly however. For example, upon receiving complaints about human rights violations concerning the POSCO project on Odisha, the Commission conducted a fact-finding mission and issued recommendations for the government on how to deal with the matter. Another way in which the Commission has tackled corporate human rights abuses is through its power as a civil court and through the intermediary of the State duty to protect. The NHRCI regularly directs local authorities to inspect businesses or enterprises against which complaints of human rights abuses have been made.[1] If the authorities’ report is unsatisfactory, the Commission may send its own inspectors to conduct a fact-finding mission. In some cases, the NHRCI directs the local authorities to pay relief. The Commission found that its sustained interventions in these cases usually leads to corrective action.[2] The NHRCI therefore seems to have rather opted for a back route to acting on business-related human rights complaints. It is nevertheless difficult to see why the Commission has shown this reluctance seeing as its mandate is rather permissive.  A more explicit mandate to deal with corporate human rights abuses would perhaps spur the NHRCI’s direct participation, which is overall quite lacking.

As to indirect participation, the National Human Rights Commission of India has had a visible presence in the sphere of business and human rights but less so in that of access to remedy. For instance, the NHRCI commissioned a study in April 2012 concerning the development of a Code of Ethics for the Indian Industry. The purpose of this study was to “[…] attempt to understand a range and quantity of ethical issues that reflect the interaction of profit-maximising behaviour with non-economic concerns […]”. Nevertheless, as far as access to remedy is concerned, this study contains nothing more than a reiteration of the UNGPs’ third pillar (see here at page 24). Nonetheless, the Commission has established a Core Group on Business, Environment and Human Rights, has convened no less than forty-three workshops on the elimination of bonded labour, and it has been nominated by the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions as the focal point for business and human rights matters. It also regularly convenes conferences on business and human rights (see for instance here and here). Most recently, following the conference on 2 July 2018, the NCHRI committed to engage with the Indian Ministry of Corporate Affairs in order to formulate a National Action Plan and to conduct a base line survey on business and human rights in the country.

In conclusion, the NHRCI has a wide mandate to protect and promote human rights but has yet to attain its full potential in ensuring access to effective remedy. It has not made full use of its complaint procedure, which could extend to cover human rights abuses by private parties. Furthermore, its role as a focal point for expertise on business and human rights seems to deal with access to remedy as a peripheral issue.

[1]           National Human Rights Commission, ‘Business and Human Rights: The Work of the National Human Rights Commission of India on the State’s Duty to Protect’

[2]           National Human Rights Commission, ‘Business and Human Rights: The Work of the National Human Rights Commission of India on the State’s Duty to Protect’

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